The woman playing the world's most famous woman was fondly remembering Christmases past in Los Angeles. When she was a child, Suzanna Guzmán recalled, the windows of Bullock's and other now-defunct department stores dripped with seasonal decor, and the downtown atmosphere was "magical."
"It was like our New York," she said.
That's one reason why Guzmán, an East L.A. native and Los Angeles Opera mezzo-soprano, this year is participating again in what has become a new local holiday tradition, aimed primarily at the region's huge immigrant Latino population.
Last Thursday night, she and a cast and technical crew of 150 mostly amateur performers, plus a handful of professional actors, musicians and designers, gathered at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels for the seventh straight year's enactment of "La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin," a pageant with music produced by the L.A.-based Latino Theatre Company. An audience estimated at 2,500 attended the production.
Directed by UCLA drama professor and Latino Theatre Company Artistic Director Jose Luis Valenzuela, and performed in Spanish and the Aztec language of Nahuatl, the folkloric work dramatizes the story of how in 1531 the Virgin of Guadalupe (played by Guzmán) appeared four times to the Aztec Indian peasant Juan Diego, a Roman Catholic convert, in the hills above Mexico City.
Peasant to saint
Initially, the Spanish bishop refused to believe that the mother of God would manifest herself to an Indian, especially in the form of a dark-skinned woman speaking the Aztec Nahuatl language and resembling the Aztec Earth deity Tonantzin.
Spurned by his fellow Indians for his new beliefs, Juan Diego was a man trapped between faiths and cultures.
But when Juan Diego presented the bishop with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe miraculously engraved on a cloth, the Roman Catholic authorities embraced it. Today, the Virgin of Guadalupe is the image most revered by Latin American Catholics and a cross-cultural icon. Pope John Paul II made Juan Diego a canonized saint in 2002.
It's a gift to the city
Valenzuela said the tale of Juan Diego's struggles and perseverance resonates particularly with Mexican, Latin American and other immigrants to metropolitan Los Angeles, home of the nation's largest Roman Catholic diocese. "Life for immigrant people is very hard, and you need to have tenacity to succeed," he said. Although the show costs about $100,000 and loses money each year, Valenzuela said, it supplies an annual holiday rite for many people who can't afford a $70 ticket to "The Nutcracker" or a shopping-mall spree.
"My general manager said, 'Well, this is a very expensive present that you give to the community,' but it's so important. [They] have so little, the Spanish-speaking immigrant population."
(The production was free at Our Lady of the Angels, where it was first performed in 2002, the year the Jose Rafael Moneo-designed building opened. It will be performed in a scaled-down version Thursday to Dec. 14 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center on Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles, where tickets are $15 and $35.)
Special to them
Apart from a shared sense of community service, many performers had other, intensely personal reasons for wanting to take part in the greatest story every told in the history of Latin American Catholicism.
"It has fed me spiritually," said Sal Lopez, a professional film and television actor who has appeared in shows like "ER" and plays the main role of Juan Diego. "It's made me more Catholic, more churchgoing, more conscientious of my behavior."
Zachary Driscoll, a 9-year-old Guatemala-born boy who was adopted as an infant by a Southern California family, has been participating in the show since he was 5. He hopes to land a part as a dancer in future years, as many older children have done.
"He likes the fact that he's part of a community of actors and dancers and musicians, kind of like a village," said his father, Dennis Driscoll. "He was really nervous the first time, but now he's kind of helping the littler kids."
Celeste Escalante was glad that her children Alexander, 10, and Marisa, 8, wanted to perform in the show this year after seeing it last year for the first time.
Their father, Juan Abel Escalante, a 27-year-old Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy, was fatally shot in July while leaving his Cypress Park home for work.
"It keeps them busy, it keeps their minds off of things," said their mother. "I tell them that Dad is still watching them."
Don Garza, who plays one of the Spanish guards, said Juan Diego's story is "about racism, it's about classism, it's about everything."
"This play reminds me that the struggle isn't over yet," he said. "We still have to struggle to right the wrongs."
The play is based on a 16th century text, "The Nican Mopohua," which relates the story of the divine apparitions and is regarded as a kind of founding Christian gospel of the Americas. It was adapted by Evelina Fernández, Valenzuela's wife, with a translation from Nahuatl to Spanish by Miguel Léon-Portilla that captures the rustic quality of the poetic imagery of the Nahuatl language.
"Those are words right out of the codice," Fernández said. "Those are words written by our ancestors 1,000 years ago, and they're beautiful. How could I ever improve on that?"
The score, a blend of traditional folkloric and religious music, was arranged and partially written by Alfredo Lopez Mondragón, who also directs the musicians.
At the end of Thursday's performance, the entire cast joined together at the altar to extend blessings. "Protect those who are crossing the border, looking for a better life." "Protect the poor who are homeless." "Protect our new president."
Several things about the show have evolved over the years. The first time it was performed at the cathedral, Valenzuela said, he had to rush out to Home Depot to buy hand-held lights for the Virgin's appearances.
But at least one thing hasn't changed.
"Every year, we launch in faith that it's going to turn out all right," Lopez said. "The Virgin helps us."
Johnson is a Times staff writer.